“Slay Everyone, Trust No One”
February 11th, 2010
Every season of Survivor is effectively the same as the one before: the players might change, but more often than not they bring nothing new to the game that hasn’t been seen in some form before. For every “twist” the producers have tried to throw into the game, it all ends up being the same in the end, which isn’t really a problem since the game is at its most compelling when it finds itself in familiar territory. Because we know what’s happened before, and because we have no idea whether the players involved know what’s happened before, we get to watch them walk in the shoes of the players who came before, either triumphing where they failed or tripping up where others succeeded.
What’s interesting about “Heroes vs. Villains,” the twentieth season of the show, is that it simultaneously reduces the game to a simple battle between good and evil while creating a game structure that is without question the most complex the show has ever seen, layered with subtexts (previous alliances, previous rivalries, personal experiences, etc.) that stretch back far into our memory of the show’s early seasons in a more overt way than ever before. By bringing the tribal competition to the surface, along with the binary that often emerges between those the audience loves to hate and those the audience wants to see go to the end, the show is creating the ultimate mind game: they are forcing characters with more emotional and gameplay baggage than ever before into a game which threatens to rigidly define them, ignoring the various subtexts in such a way that they can’t help but surface the first time anyone dares mention the word alliance or whispers about how successful some players have been in the past.
The result is Survivor at its most confident, pushing all the right buttons and getting some all-time great moments, some substantial comedy mixed with some engaging drama, and enough introspection to quite literally sink any other reality show that wasn’t build for just that sort of psychological inquisition.
Survivor Samoa Finale: There’s Something About Russell
December 20th, 2009
When Survivor started its nineteenth season, there was a man named Russell. Pot-bellied and stubborn, Russell emerged as if pre-fabricated to play the role of villain in Mark Burnett’s game. He came in with no desire to make friends, and started emptying out canteens and burning socks. It was the most aggressive villain edit the show had ever seen, which meant one of two things to me: either Russell was going to be leaving very quickly (hence the show maximizing his villainy time) or else there was more to Russell’s game than this villainy would seem to indicate.
Russell proved inherently divisive in those early weeks: some people hated him, and felt as if he was ruining the season with his heartless ways. But something changed in the game that made Russell seem less villainous. His tribe, Foa Foa, started getting clobbered in challenges, which meant that Russell’s victims were becoming victims of the game itself. And so Russell didn’t have to be a villain anymore, just watching as his tribe lost every challenge and revelling in his ability to manipulate his tribe into voting how he wanted them to vote. And suddenly instead of someone who was operating against the game (burning socks, disrupting daily life), Russell was simply a puppetmaster enjoying as the rest of his tribe stopped thinking for themselves.
And then the game became Russell’s, to the point where behaviour that before felt obnoxious (like finding the immunity idol without a clue) suddenly became genius, and where his manipulations went from an unnecessary force in the game to a brilliant strategic advantage that took the four remaining Foa Foa members from a severe disadvantage to standing as four members of the final five heading into the show’s finale. And somewhere along the way, the game went from being Russell’s to ruin to being Russell’s to win, and in many ways this finale has come down less to who wins and more to whether or not that person is Russell.
That’s the joy of Survivor, really: if you had told me that at the beginning of the season, I never would have believed you.
The Game vs. The Players
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
In our weekly glimpse into the world of Survivor: Samoa, Top Chef, and Project Runway, it’s important to distinguish between the game and the players of that game. Every episode of all three shows is essentially about the way the producers construct the game (the challenges, the conditions, the time limits, even the casting itself), and the players are forced to interpret and operate within that game as they see fit. So when you find yourself frustrated with a fairly boring season of Project Runway, or impatient with a season of Top Chef, or find Survivor’s villains too much to handle, you need to ask yourself if this it the result of the game or the people who are playing it.
In all three episodes of these three shows this week, we saw situations where the game took control of the players, and where their sewing, their cooking and their scheming felt so clearly defined by the game that I was simultaneously interested and bored. It’s the ultimate test of any group of reality contestants, though, to be forced into a situation the producers have designed: do they strike out on a unique course, indicating that they’re a real rebel, or whether they fall right in with the expectations put in front of them.
It’s a process which makes me doubt Runway, trust Top Chef, and change my mind about a few Survivor players.
2009 Primetime Emmy Awards LiveBlog
September 20th, 2009
For Cultural Learnings’ complete review of the show, CLICK HERE. For the full live blog, read on below.
I was kind of on the fence about liveblogging the Emmys this year, I really was. Twitter has provided an outlet for quippy remarks and observations that I might have while watching the event, and I ultimately end up writing a huge 2000-word rundown when the show ends so it’s not as if a LiveBlog is going to stand as my only coverage of the big event here at Cultural Learnings.
However, ultimately I want something to be able to refer to when piecing together my final rundown of the night’s festivities, and a LiveBlog seems like the kind of setup that will capture my reaction to the various winners/moments in the ceremony for those who want to know how everything is going down as it’s going down.
So, if you want to follow along with the show or check back later to see my subjective take on a particular moment in the show, here’s where you’re going to want to be. Meanwhile, if you want things elaborate and substantial, check back later tonight for my full analysis of the evening’s winners, losers, and everything in between.
7:20pm: As we wait for the show to begin, feel free to check out my predictions for the big night (the acting categories all link to long analysis pieces of each category): Cultural Learnings’ Full Emmy Predictions.
7:54pm: Enjoying Christine Baranski’s guest spot in a pre-Emmys airing of The Big Bang Theory – an omen for Jim Parsons? Baranski was always going to lose to Tina Fey, but she was damn good in this episode.
8:00pm: And we’re off and running. Television: useful science of the electronic age, indeed. Making fun of Wipeout as “Unsophisticated” is a bit low of CBS, but I guess they don’t have anything quite as lowly…except for Big Brother. Anyways, time for NPH.
Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we’d lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings’ Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]
Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.
I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.
It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.
So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.
“I Trust You but I Trust Me More”
May 17th, 2009
In my time writing here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve blogged through five seasons of Survivor, although there’s a pattern: I might start out with a few posts on specific episodes, or really commit myself to getting to it on a weekly basis, but without fail it falls off my critical radar. I don’t stop watching the show: although episodes are often spoiled for me, I still quite consistently dig into the week’s episode to see what the show will serve up next. It isn’t that I expect there to be something different, but rather there’s a combination of nostalgia (for a show that is highly familiar for me) and curiosity (to see the ways the show is trying to stay fresh in an environment where most other reality shows of the same era have perished).
This season has, for the most part, lacked major drama: other than Coach, one of the most ridiculous players in quite some time, the characters have been fairly under the radar. Outside of the one exception, people have been pretty pleasant to watch, and early season discussion of an Exile Island alliance seemed like it was going to be a potential dealmaker later in the season. Things got more interesting when the Jalapao Three began to work their way into an unlikely position of power in the season’s back half, but it happened so effortlessly that I was more baffled by Timbira’s lack of intelligence than I was entertained by the turn of events.
Survivor, as a show, is all about big moments or little quirks: either there’s a big personality that makes every moment they’re around like a powder keg waiting to explode, which Coach provided to an extent, or it’s just challenges and tribal council, and posturing for those in between. This makes a finale like this one, which cuts down a lot of the meat in the middle and gets right to the point until the final tribal council. Luckily for Mark Burnett and company, in the vein of some previous finales, there’s plenty of drama to rush through to keep things interesting: while the Jalapao Three have managed to stay strong thus far, it wasn’t based on thier own strategic genius, and with the only remaining Timbira member less incompotent than her predecessors it becomes clear that Three’s Company.
And with that comes the unraveling, which always makes for an engaging finale if not, perhaps, the clean ending the Jalapao Three imagined for themselves.
“You’re Going to Want That Tooth”
March 12th, 2009
One of the concerns with any season of Survivor is that you won’t get a story to follow – the editors will work hard to create one, but you’re looking for that alliance, or rivalry, or relationship, or something else that will make this season of Survivor different than the others. Of course, the fact that the producers are so clearly trying to find these every single season means that every season kind of becomes pretty much the same.
As far as stories go, the “Secret” alliance of Taj, Stephen, Brendan and Sierra is a great one on the surface – it justifies the new two-person Exile Island twist, it has the potential to be quite explosive, and more importantly it actually worked: this week’s episode opens with Taj getting the second immunity idol, completing the circle of life of sorts. The problem now is that their plan lacks foresight: instead of being a sudden twist or turn in the game, which are always more exciting, we get to watch it slowly disintegrate, an alliance that is hard to keep secret when it gives them an extra boost of what can easily go from confidence to cockiness.
The producers, meanwhile, are probably pretty happy with this: it means that instead of waiting for the merge for this alliance to explode, there’s every chance it could all explode at any moment, whether it’s one of the other tribe members getting suspicious or the alliance itself falling apart at the seams. Either way, it’s something that I am really curious to see play out, as we start to see parts of it here.
“Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This”
February 26th, 2009
Winners find a way to win, losers find a way to lose.
Coach might be one of the most delusional and irrational players in recent memory on Survivor, but of his various cliched idioms this one is actually quite apt for the game. Of course, when he says it, he implies that it means that Timbira are going to prove themselves winners by winning the next challenge, but this wasn’t in the cards so much. I don’t say that this is an apt saying because it is true, but rather because it’s almost always wrong: at this stage in the game, the tribes are groups of individuals who are made up of winners and losers both, and whoever happens to overcome their losers wins the day.
In the end, Timbira is a tribe that is suffering through the fact that the people are delusional, acting as if they have the luxury of following individual vendettas more than they do the logical structure of the game. They’re so caught up in creating hierarchies that they’re failing to realize that at this stage it’s not about who you like, it’s about minimizing the chances of sending someone home at all. People like Coach can start playing their games once they get to the merge: as long as there are two tribes, they need to think with their heads, and at this point the game is coming down to which team has a larger grasp of reality.
That’s Jalapao right now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
“The Poison Apple Needs to Go”
February 19th, 2009
I wrote all sorts of notes during last night’s second episode of Survivor’s eighteenth season, but I got a little sidetracked by some impromptu Rock Band once the episode was over, and I return to it now wondering to myself why I’m even bothering writing this post.
It’s going to more or less say exactly the same things as last week, to be honest: while a different team walks away with immunity, they make almost the exact same decision as the other tribe did last week, right down to the outright sweep of the final vote. The same people who were bugging me last week are, no shock, bugging me again here, and for the most part there’s still a spark missing for this season’s cast that really could have made this episode more interesting.
But in revisiting it, there are a few things that deserve mention, especially a new Exile Island twist that at first seemed quite silly but in retrospect is actually quite interesting…perhaps the first interesting thing to come out of this season.
“Let’s Get Rid of the Weak Players Before We Even Start”
February 12th, 2009
Every year of Survivor is in search of two things: a gimmick and a character. These are the two things that have made seasons that could have been weak into something very fascinating, whether it was the introduction of Exile Island or even the Fans vs. Favourites format that didn’t feel like it should have worked but resulted in a very engaging season.
In terms of Survivor: Tocantins, this really isn’t a season about any gimmicks: while the show tries to start off with a big shocker, the game itself is its usual self, the location similar to what we’ve seen in past seasons. Instead, it’s going to be a question of whether or not there is enough character at play here, whether we can get the kind of intrigue that we got to see last season in Gabon. There, though, the intrigue was driven almost entirely by people making highly emotional decisions, something that cannot be predicted or manufactured.
But that isn’t going to stop the show from trying: from the word go, the show wants this season to be about first impressions, about baseless accusations and judgments that are not close to reality and instead ask them to cast aside actual human interaction in favour of cheap shots. As a result, I’ll provide my own fairly baseless first impression: there is no sign here that this season will be able to expand the show’s usual structure, and while I think there are some characters worthy of some interest I’ll just unilaterally decide that it’s going to be a pisspoor season.
And then I’m going to watch it anyways – I’m not all about first impressions, and I think even the show is aware of this.